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Behind the grid – a closer look at Ontario’s electricity

Power to Ontario. On Demand. That’s the tagline of the Ontario IESO (the Independent Electricity System Operators).  And, as I learned on a rare visit behind the central grid, it’s also the most concise description of the complex work that goes on in an undisclosed location, in a fairly unremarkable building, which is—in a way— the central nervous system of the province.

The lights of Chicago city burn brightly at night consuming large amounts of electricity, Illinois, United States.  © National Geographic Stock / Jim Richardson / WWF

On a chilly day, just before Christmas, I joined my colleagues—Josh Laughren, director of our Climate and Energy program, and Farid Sharif, decision support specialist — for a tour of the facility, hosted by the Society of Energy Professionals.  The mantra of our climate change work at WWF is about changing how we use and produce energy. And my hope, through this (pretty cool!) field trip, was to try and ground that mantra in the tangible reality of the grid. The place where energy production and energy demand grasp hands in a dance-a-thon that never stops.

And dance might be the right metaphor.  The mandate of the IESO— the premise of the dance—is simple:  dispatch the right amount of electricity to meet demand, exactly, constantly, 24 hours day.  But the beat, the music—that’s decided by the people of Ontario.  By what we, en masse, decide to do today—powering up and down in response to a host of potential variables.  There are trends, of course, shaped by predictable changes in the seasons and the patterns of our typical, everyday behavior (firing up our ovens at dinner time, turning off our lights for bed).  “The best predicator of how people will use energy today is how they used it yesterday,” explained Rob Kapteyn, IESO senior technical officer.  That is, of course, unless it’s Monday which has a completely different rhythm from Friday, both of which are different from the weekend.  Then there are the more random events, from thunderstorms to gold-medal hockey games, which can suddenly turn a waltz into a jitterbug.  Rob showed us a graph from November 11, 2012.  It takes the shape of any other winter day except for a dramatic dip at exactly 11am—the energy impression of our moment of silence.

Thermographic image of a residence house in New Haven, CT, USA. This is to illustrate that structures, both residences and commercial, are some of the largest consumers of energy, especially in the heating and cooling of the structures. © National Geographic Stock /Tyrone Turner / WWF

Of course the folks at IESO are experts at anticipating these events, drawing on historical data to predict eminent future demands.  But they can only go back so far. “The trends of just 5 years ago are completely different than the trends today,”   says Rob.  Take peak energy use for example.  Before Y2K, our peak use always happened in the winter time.  But for the past 7 or 8 years, it’s occurred during the summer.  In fact our highest energy peak ever happened on August 1, 2006 (it was hotter in Toronto that day than it was in Houston and Mexico City!).  “Climate change!” I volunteer, feeling a bit self-satisfied with my keen insight.  But I’m met with a resounding, “maybe.”  Nothing behind the grid is quite that simple.  The 2008 heat wave didn’t provoke the same energy peaks that we saw in 2006. In fact, energy demand seems to have dropped across the board.  The increasing effectiveness of energy conservation programs is a likely factor in changing energy trends, which is a good news story.  The economic downfall triggered by the 2008 recession is another, less-happy, explanation, as well as the ongoing and fundamental restructuring of Ontario’s economy, with less emphasis on energy-intensive manufacturing.

Ontario’s investment in renewable energy is another game-changer for the folks at IESO. On the one hand, it’s about energy use.  Local renewable energy sources reshape demand patterns in unexpected ways by supplying electricity “behind the meter” (think, for example, of a huge factory with significant load that suddenly starts drawing some of its energy from solar panels on its roof instead of from the grid).  On the other hand, it’s about energy production.  Wind and solar are different energy “animals” than the traditional sources (nuclear, gas) that our grid is built to easily manage and dispatch.  They’re more variable (a sudden strong wind) and more flexible (you can turn a turbine on and off much easier than a nuclear power plant).  “We’ve got to increase our ability to predict wind and solar patterns and we also have to figure out how to dispatch them strategically,” explains Dina Shoukri, a senior engineer who is part of the team responsible for leading renewables integration.  There are some big, glaring questions about how to get these sources in use at scale, especially when we can’t store their energy yet.  As we get deeper into the discussion it hits me like a shock, what it really means to make the transition to 100% renewable energy.  It’s the definition of a transformative goal because, by nature, it requires fundamental change of the basic infrastructure both exemplified and represented by the grid.

Can it really be done? I asked Josh and Farid on the way home.  Yes, Josh said, one step at a time. That’s what makes it so critical that all our investments in Ontario’s electricity system support the low-carbon, climate-friendly future we know we need. And like the dance of the grid itself, it’ll be the right steps at the right moments – starting now – that make it possible.